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Busting roadblocks to a dream

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Esther Cepeda
February 10, 2011
— Ronnie Acosta, Jennifer Cronin and Luisa Perez know a little something about the heated national immigration debate. As undergraduate students at Lebanon Valley College in Pennsylvania—and longtime area residents—they’re only about 65 miles south of Hazelton, which in 2006 made national news by establishing ordinances to discourage renting to and hiring illegal immigrants.

Last year as the Dream Act, designed to use college and military service as a path to citizenship, helped shape both the run-up to and aftermath of the midterm elections, the three spent months researching the melting pot of their local high school. They wanted to tease out data on the rarely discussed challenges of legal Latinos who also want to attend college but feel those dreams are out of reach.


Acosta, a sociology and criminal justice major who undertook the research along with Cronin and Perez, told me that his team’s survey of Lebanon High School students found more than two-thirds of the Hispanic students have lived their entire lives in the United States—mirroring Pew Hispanic Center data that say 62 percent of Hispanics are U.S.-born. And the bulk of those surveyed are Puerto Rican, “all of whom are citizens, though most people around here don’t know that,” he said, with the rest of those surveyed equally divided among Mexicans, Dominicans or those who report they are “other,” mostly white.


Of the Hispanic students, one-third said their parents lacked a high school diploma and most identified their families as working poor.


Acosta, a naturalized citizen from the Dominican Republic who will be the first in his family to graduate from college, said the research found that despite the disadvantages of being seen by the community as immigrants and coming from poor families, “around 90 percent of students reported that they planned to go to college, but according to school records, only about 70 percent of Lebanon High School graduates will attend college.”


Those numbers match those from the National Center for Education Statistics, which notes that the college attendance rate for Latino high school graduates is only 62 percent.


John Hinshaw, chair of the college’s department of history and political science who supervised the students’ research, was surprised by the results.


“Other research has supported claims that Hispanic students, especially those born in the United States, tend to be more alienated from public education and, oftentimes, have lower educational aspirations than Hispanic migrants,” Hinshaw said. “However, of the more than 200 students we spoke with, the vast majority of students, white and Hispanic, want to go to college. The only difference is that Hispanic students are much more apt to be children of the working poor.”


And that’s why Acosta, Cronin and Perez are hoping to publicize their research—to give voice to all the Latino students who have the same hopes for a better life as did the Dream Act activists who risked deportation last fall to bring attention to their difficulties. They want people to know that legal-immigrant and U.S.-born Latinos also face many serious roadblocks to earning college degrees, the biggest of which is the perception that money is the one unmovable barrier.


“It’s so, so hard to get through,” said Acosta, whose parents couldn’t offer financial support. And because Latino families are averse to the huge student loans that have become a normal part of the college-going culture for white families, they usually aren’t an option.


“If they get in, like me, most Latino students are doing it by themselves by taking out small loans and risking their few academic scholarships by working a full-time job to pay for tuition.”


The research team identified several interventions to get Latinos into and graduated from college, including encouraging students to believe that they can go to and pay for their education, more high school counseling on getting into and through college, and more scholarship and financial-aid opportunities.


But their most pressing concern is to spread the word that while many Latinos are working against low incomes, low expectations and misunderstandings about their legal status, they are committed to becoming educated, contributing members of the larger U.S. community.


“Lebanon is a small city, but there are many places like it with Latino students who have similar stories,” said Acosta. “And we’re here to say that Hispanics aren’t dumb, we want to go to college rather than just work. But it’s a struggle.”


Esther Cepeda is a columnist for the Washington Post Writers Group. Her e-mail address is estherjcepeda@washpost.com.

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